Jesus' Parables for Disciples
7. Suffering with a Clear Conscience (1 Peter 3:8-22)by Dr. Ralph F. Wilson
Peter knew what it meant to suffer with a clear conscience. 'The Crucifixion of St. Peter' (1600-1601) is portrayed by Italian painter Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1573-1610) with dramatic lighting, oil on canvas, 2300mm x 1750mm, Cerasi Chapel, Santa Maria del Popolo, Rome. Larger image.
Christians will suffer, so let us suffer with a clear conscience. In this passage Peter calls each of us to integrity before God, integrity before God's people, and integrity before the unbelievers who live around us. But also contained in this passage are fascinating references to Christ's atonement and Christian baptism.
Integrity, according to St. Peter, needs to infuse Christians' relationships with each other in the church. If we expect to exhibit the fruit of the Spirit in the world where it's tough, we must be able to love each other in our church where we're among friends.
"Finally, all of you, live in harmony with one another; be sympathetic, love as brothers, be compassionate and humble. Do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult, but with blessing, because to this you were called so that you may inherit a blessing." (1 Peter 3:8-9)
Let's review some of these qualities that God would have displayed within his church. They are a series of adjectives that describe qualities of character and love:
Harmonious. "Live in harmony" (NIV), "all of one mind" (KJV), "have unity of spirit" (NRSV) translate the Greek compound adjective homophrōn, "pertaining to being like-minded, united in spirit, harmonious," (from homos, "common" + phrēn, "thinking"). This doesn't mean that we all have to agree on everything. We may agree to disagree about less important matters, but in the common work of the Lord, we refuse to let any disagreement separate or distract us. We agree to be of one mind on the things that matter. Is your church harmonious? Is it perhaps that your church stresses independent thinking rather than like-mindedness?
Sympathetic. "Be sympathetic" (NIV; NRSV), "having compassion one of another" (KJV) translate the Greek adjective sympathēs, "sympathetic, understanding." This word was originally used for one who has the same pathos, "suffering," "one who is affected like another by the same sufferings, impressions, emotions," or "who suffers, experiences the same as another." Only later it developed the meaning, "one who has fellow-feeling, sympathy with another." We are willing to feel what our brothers and sisters feel. Paul put it this way: "Carry each other's burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ" (Galatians 6:2). Being sympathetic is the opposite of selfishness and self-centeredness.
Consider Paul's phrase, "the fellowship of [Christ's] sufferings" (Philippians 3:10, KJV). We Christians let so many things divide us because we don't see ourselves as sharers with each other in the suffering of Christ. That unites us and opens our hearts to each other.
Affectionate as Brothers and Sisters. "Love as brothers" (NIV, KJV), "love for one another" (NRSV) is the Greek adjective philadelphos, "loving one's brother/sister." In the New Testament the word means, "having affection for an associate, having brotherly love, having mutual affection." Some churches speak in terms of "brother" and "sister" all the time as a thoughtless title. Other churches see such terms as archaic and uncomfortable. But we really are brothers and sisters. Peter calls us to have the same affection for each other as biological brothers and sisters normally do. We've been called to love in a family. Yes, families have problems. Brothers and sisters do pretty bizarre things sometimes. But we must love them through it. We are family. And because we love as brothers and sisters, we have a tremendous loyalty to and responsibility to each other.
Compassionate. "Be compassionate" (NIV), "be pitiful" (KJV), "a tender heart" (NRSV) is the Greek adjective eusplanchnos, "pertaining to having tender feelings for someone, tenderhearted, compassionate." The root splangchna refers to the "inward parts, entrails, hence as the seat of emotion, the heart." Overall, the word implies a deep feeling for someone, a tender heart. We Christians are exhorted to have this kind of feeling for one another in the church family.
Humble. So much pettiness in the church can be attributed to pride. But Peter, a great, proud blowhard of yesteryear, calls us to be humble toward one another. "Humble" (NIV), "humble mind" (NRSV), "courteous" (KJV) is the Greek adjective tapeinophrōn, "humble, modest." The basic idea of the root tapeinos in Classical Greek is "below," low, in comparison with that which is above or higher. In Classical Greek the word was used in the sense to demean oneself, usually in a derogatory sense. In the Greek Septuagint translation of the Old Testament, however, the term begins to be used in a more positive light -- humble, modest vs. proud, insolent, arrogant. Members of the word group are used 34 times in the New Testament in a positive sense. Jesus describes himself as "meek" and lowly (tapeinos) in heart" (Matthew 11:29), one who comes to serve. He calls his disciples to see themselves as servants also (Mark 10:43-45). When Jesus washed Peter's feet at the Last Supper (John 13:4-16), Peter never forgot the lesson.
Grudge-Free. "Do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult," Peter exhorts us. When we repay evil with evil, it is a sure sign that we haven't forgiven. When we insult in the same way we've been insulted, it shows that we carry grudges. How many quarrels at church break out because of some supposed offense that happened years ago? How many church disputes are due to carrying grudges? Too many! Peter tells us to grow up.
Full of Blessing. Rather, we should be so full of God, that when we are wronged or insulted or wounded, we ooze blessing to our enemies. The sinful nature returns evil for evil. The Spirit-nature returns insult with a blessing. Consider the power of this statement:
"Do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult, but with blessing, because to this you were called so that you may inherit a blessing." (3:9)
You and I are called to be a blessing to our enemies. When we suffer, we bless. When we are slandered, we bless. When we are hurting, we bless. Why? Because we are called to bless! And as we bless and suffer and bless still, we inherit the blessings of Jesus, whose suffering and blessing we emulate -- "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do" (Luke 23:34).
Q1. (3:8-9) Which of the qualities Peter mentions in
3:8-9 are most evident in your congregation? Which are most needed? What can you
and your friends do to change the relational climate at your church so it is
Peter quotes from Psalm 34:12-16 to bolster his case for a pure tongue and a clear conscience.
"Whoever would love life
and see good days
must keep his tongue from evil
and his lips from deceitful speech.
He must turn from evil and do good;
he must seek peace and pursue it.
For the eyes of the Lord are on the righteous
and his ears are attentive to their prayer,
but the face of the Lord is against those who do evil." (1 Peter 3:10-12)
Our tongue is prone to evil, especially when we are under pressure. We complain. We blame. We vacillate. But in the Spirit, our tongue becomes an agent of blessing. Notice the path of the righteous man and woman:
"He must turn from evil and do good;
he must seek peace and pursue it." (1 Peter 3:11 = Psalm 34:14)
When we are tempted, sometimes we must consciously and deliberately turn away from evil and toward good. Notice that the way of righteousness is not passive. It is a decision. See the three verbs in verse 11:
To live a Christian life in Peter's day was a struggle and sometimes brought suffering. The same is true today. The Christian life calls for courage and fortitude in the face of evil.
Peter calls his readers to righteousness, because too often Christians have compromised and brought discredit on Jesus. In fact, if we do good, Peter argues, we're more likely to escape harm than if we compromise.
"Who is going to harm you if you are eager to do good? But even if you should suffer for what is right, you are blessed. 'Do not fear what they fear; do not be frightened.'" (3:13-14)
Peter suggests that we should be zealots for doing good. "Eager" (NIV, NRSV), "followers" (KJV) is the Greek noun zēlōtēs (from which we get our English word "zealot"). It means "one who is earnestly committed to a side or cause, enthusiast, adherent, loyalist." But even if we suffer for doing good, God blesses us.
To encourage Christians in suffering, Peter admonishes us with a word from the Lord in Isaiah: "Do not fear what they fear; do not be frightened." When God spoke these words to Isaiah, Isaiah reports that God's "strong hand [was] upon me, warning me not to follow the way of this people" (Isaiah 8:11). The people feared death at the hands of their enemies, but Isaiah was not to fear. He was not to panic or be intimidated. He was to fear the Lord, not the enemy. He was to trust in the Lord. So are we.
Now Peter gives us instruction in how to answer those who persecute us.
"But in your hearts set apart Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander. It is better, if it is God's will, to suffer for doing good than for doing evil." (3:15-17)
I see four distinct parts to this instruction.
1. Focus on Christ rather than your fears. It is vital that we get our priorities straight. Just as God said to Isaiah during his crisis in the passage just quoted, we are not to fear what unbeliever's fear, but to fear God. Look at the full context of the Isaiah passage:
"The Lord Almighty is the one you are to regard as holy (Greek Septuagint
he is the one you are to fear,
he is the one you are to dread,
and he will be a sanctuary...." (Isaiah 8:14-15)
Peter echoes Isaiah 8:15. "But in your hearts set apart (Greek hagiazō) Christ as Lord." The Greek verb hagiazō, means primarily, "sanctify, make holy." Here, however, the word probably means "to treat as holy, reverence, regard reverently," as in Matthew 6:9, "hallowed be thy name" or "may your name be reverenced." Make very sure that it is God whom you fear. Peter also recalls what Jesus had told his disciples:
"I tell you, my friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body and after that can do no more. But I will show you whom you should fear: Fear him who, after the killing of the body, has power to throw you into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him. Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten by God. Indeed, the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Don't be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows." (Luke 12:4-7)
Focus on Christ rather than your fears.
2. Be ready to give an answer. Sometimes we find ourselves terrified to witness to our friends, much less our enemies who are actively persecuting us. But we are to "be prepared" (NIV) or "be ready" (KJV, NRSV). Ahead of time decide that you will not suffer silently. No, you won't reply with an insult, but you will reply. "Answer" (NIV, KJV), "defense" (NRSV) is the Greek noun apologia, "a speech of defense, defense, reply," from which we get our English words "apology" and "apologetics." It is good for us to think through why we serve Jesus and the hope we have in him, so that we can articulate it to others. In times of persecution, the Holy Spirit will help us know what to say (Luke 12:11-12), but we must overcome our fears so we are willing to say what God gives us.
3. Reply with gentleness. "But do this with gentleness and respect." We're sorely tempted to tell off our tormenters and condemn them to the hell that they (and we, for that matter) so richly deserve. We must resist that temptation. Rather, we must answer as did Jesus. "Gentleness" (NIV, NRSV), "meekness" (KJV) is the Greek noun prautēs, "the quality of not being overly impressed by a sense of one's self importance, gentleness, humility, courtesy, considerateness, meekness in the older favorable sense." The second noun in this clause, "respect" (NIV), "reverence" (NRSV), "fear" (KJV) is Greek phobos, "fear," which we've seen before. Here it means "reverence, respect," as it did in 2:18 and 3:2. We are not to "lose it." Rather we are to speak about our Lord with joy and gentleness, respecting our tormenters as people for whom Christ died.
4. Keep a clear conscience. When we're under pressure and our life is on the line, we are tempted to justify any action with the argument that the ends justify the means. As followers of the sinless Son of God, we don't have that option. "Conscience" here and in 3:21 below is the Greek noun syneidēsis, "the inward faculty of distinguishing right and wrong, moral consciousness, conscience." We must act righteously and speak with gentleness, even in the face of evil. Otherwise, we become evil ourselves. Remember Peter's exhortation in verse 9:
"Do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult, but with blessing, because to this you were called so that you may inherit a blessing." (1 Peter 3:9)
Q2. (3:15-16) Why is it so hard for us to be a witness
when we're persecuted? Why is it easy in tough places to be the wrong kind of
witness? Which one of Peter's four instructions do you find most needed in
your particular situation?
Peter now reminds of Jesus' righteousness and sinlessness in the face of his own death, as an example to us.
"It is better, if it is God's will, to suffer for doing good than for doing evil. For Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God." (3:17-18)
As Peter gives us the example of Jesus' righteousness as a model for our own, we learn some important lessons about the redemptive power of Jesus suffering for us.
1. Christ died for sins. "Died" (NIV), "suffered" (KJV, NRSV) is the Greek verb paschō, "suffer, endure," here in the sense of "suffer death, be killed, (have to) die." In the phrase "for sins," the Greek preposition is interesting. Peri serves "to denote the object ... to which an activity or especially inward process refers or relates, about, concerning." When used with the noun harmatia, "sin," as in this verse, peri "has the sense to take away, to atone for."
2. Once for all. "Once for all" is the Greek adverb hapax, "pertaining to a single occurrence, once." Sometimes we may feel like we need to be forgiven all over again. But Christ's atonement has been made once for all, with no need to ever be repeated again. Catholics have traditionally understood the Eucharist as a sacrifice. Because of this phrase, "once for all," Protestants have emphasized the Eucharist as a celebration of Christ's once-for-all sacrifice, "in remembrance" of him. We both agree, however, that Christ died for our sins.
3. The righteous for the unrighteous. Peter has already established that "He committed no sin" (1 Peter 2:22 quoting Isaiah 53:9). In Lesson 5 above, I spent some time recounting various passages of Scripture that underscore the foundational Christian teaching that Jesus was without sin. John the Apostle writes:
"... Jesus Christ, the Righteous One. He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world." (1 John 2:1-2)
In our case, the Righteous One substituted himself to die for the sins of the unrighteous ones -- all of us humans. This is a clear example of a substitutionary view of the atonement.
4. To bring you to God. This passage uses the Greek conjunction hina, as a "marker to denote purpose, aim, or goal, in order that, that." Jesus' purpose is clear -- to bring us to God. "Bring" is the Greek verb prosagō, "bring into someone's presence, bring (forward)." What does that mean? It means to be reconciled to God (Ephesians 2:16), to have access to the Father (Ephesians 2:17), to approach the throne of grace with confidence (Hebrews 4:16), to be purified from sin so we can approach God (Hebrews 10:22), to have peace with God (Romans 5:1; Colossians 1:20).
Q3. (3:18a) Meditate for a few minutes on this verse:
"For Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to
bring you to God." Now personalize it to imagine (1) your sins, (2) your
unrighteousness, and (3) your reconciliation with God. Each of these ideas is
awesome! Which of these three aspects of the verse has God impressed most
strongly on you today? Select one of the three and share it.
The next passage is puzzling and not very clear to us:
"He was put to death in the body but made alive by the Spirit, through whom also he went and preached to the spirits in prison who disobeyed long ago when God waited patiently in the days of Noah while the ark was being built. In it only a few people, eight in all, were saved through water...." (3:18b-20)
What do these verses mean? Some also see a tie-in with 1 Peter 4:6. There have been a variety of explanations, and no real certainty as to the precise meaning. Wayne Grudem outlines the five most common theories, showing with italics how each theory identifies "the spirits in prison":
- When Noah was building the ark, Christ "in spirit" was in Noah preaching repentance and righteousness through him to unbelievers who were on the earth then but now are "spirits in prison" (people in hell).
- After Christ died, he went and preached to people in hell, offering them a second chance of salvation.
- After Christ died, he went and preached to people in hell, proclaiming to them that he had triumphed over them and their condemnation was final.
- After Christ died, he proclaimed release to people who had repented just before they died in the flood, and led them out of their imprisonment (in Purgatory) into heaven.
- After Christ died (or after he rose but before he ascended into heaven), he traveled to hell and proclaimed triumph over the fallen angels who had sinned by marrying human women before the flood.
Frankly, I'm not sure which of these theories is correct. Perhaps Theories 1 and 5 have some merit. Nowhere else in Scripture are we told that people in hell have a second chance at salvation, so Theory 2 doesn't make sense to me. Purgatory is mentioned only in the apocryphal book of 2 Maccabees 12:43-46 and nowhere in the New Testament, so I doubt that Theory 4 is very likely. The issues are far too technical to discuss here. I'm sorry to "cop out" on this explanation, but I don't want to waste space in this lesson on what is only speculation. Fortunately, whatever Peter is talking about is in the past tense and doesn't seem to have anything to do with us.
Peter alludes to Noah and his family being saved in the ark "through water," which leads him to refer briefly to Christian baptism.
"... Saved through water and this water symbolizes baptism that now saves you also -- not the removal of dirt from the body but the pledge of a good conscience toward God." (3:20b-21)
Noah's salvation "through water" is a symbol or figure which reminds Peter of baptism. Peter calls us to look beyond the gross symbolism of baptism of removing dirt from one's body, probably referring to immersion, which was practiced in the early church.
"Pledge" (NIV), "answer" (KJV), "appeal" (NRSV) all are an attempt to translate the Greek noun eperōtēma, which can mean "a formal request, appeal." But references in the papyri indicate that the meaning "pledge" is also possible. Eperōtēma was a technical term for making a contract and could denote the undertaking given by one of the parties in answer to the formal question addressed to him. Either of the definitions is possible.
But there's another exegetical question in this passage -- whether to take the phrase "of a good conscience towards God" as "proceeding from a good conscience" (subjective genitive) or "to maintain a good conscience, that is, a right moral attitude" (objective genitive). Scholars argue back and forth about this.
Here's how I interpret this passage. It is likely that then, as at baptisms today, the candidate is asked whether he or she believes in Jesus as the Son of God and whether he or she will follow him as Savior and Lord -- in a word, does he or she profess faith? The "yes" or "I do" answers to these questions function as a pledge to God. I prefer to take "of a good conscience" as subjective genitive, that is, a pledge proceeding from a good conscience towards God -- sincere. But if you choose to interpret this as an appeal to God for a good conscience or from a good conscience, I can see how that might make sense, too.
Now let's examine some theological implications of this verse. In what sense does baptism save us?
Baptism does not save us by our ability to keep a pledge to obey God. If that were the case, we would be saving ourselves and be back under the law. And we are clearly not under the law according to the New Testament.
"For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith--and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God -- not by works, so that no one can boast." (Ephesians 2:8-9)
Rather, baptism does save us "by the resurrection of Jesus Christ," by his mighty act. In baptism by immersion, the person being baptized symbolically enacts both burial and resurrection.
"We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life." (Romans 6:4)
Burial is symbolized when we are dunked under the water. Resurrection is symbolized when we come up out of the water. We didn't die for our sin, Jesus did, and we identify with his death by baptism. We can't produce spiritual life either, Jesus does, and we identify with his resurrection to eternal life by baptism.
Baptism, then, saves us as being the occasion of a faith pledge in the resurrection power of Christ.
Can a person be saved without being baptized? I believe so, when you theologically dissect them from each other (which the New Testament doesn't do, incidentally). It is faith in Christ, not the performance of a Christian rite, that saves us -- witness the salvation of the repentant thief on the cross (Luke 23:39-43). But in the early church, baptism normally followed immediately upon profession of faith (Acts 2:38-41; 8:36-38; 10:47-48; 16:33; 19:5; 22:16), so much so that they are spoken of together. For a Christian, when you put your trust in Jesus, the next step is to be baptized as a pledge to God of your faith in him and a witness to others that you are following Christ.
Q4. (3:20-21) Various
Christian traditions have different practices of baptism -- the mode (sprinkling,
pouring, immersion) and the age (infant vs. an age when a person can profess his
or her own faith). Let's not argue about that in this forum. Let me ask
you the crucial question for you -- Have you pledged your faith in Jesus Christ
and promised to serve him as his disciple? How does this pledge relate to your
own baptism? (Remember, no criticism of
another's understanding of baptism in the forum. No fighting. No setting people
straight -- seriously!)
This section of 1 Peter concludes with almost a doxology, a paean of praise to the glorified Christ:
"It saves you by the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at God's right hand -- with angels, authorities and powers in submission to him." (3:21-22)
Jesus is indeed Lord now. He lowered himself, he humbled himself, even to death as a criminal on the cross. But God has raised him from the dead!
"God exalted him to the highest place
and gave him the name that is above every name,
that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father." (Philippians 2:9-11)
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Dear friends, we serve a risen Savior, he's in the world today. Hallelujah! Serve him faithfully, whether you suffer persecution or not. Emulate his humility and love with your brothers and sisters in the church. Imitate his righteousness as you live in the world. Serve Christ with a clear conscience!
Father, as I meditate on verse 18 I see myself -- unrighteous. And I see the Righteous One, Jesus, taking my place -- willingly, lovingly, at great personal cost. I have no real way to comprehend this kind of love. All I can do is to say "thank you" and try to live my life motivated by that same quality of self-giving love. I fall so short. Thank you for your forgiveness. Thank you for your patience with me. Thank you for your encouraging words when I lag behind you. Thank you so much! In Jesus' name, I pray. Amen.
"For Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God." (1 Peter 3:18)
 Homophrōn, BDAG 709-710.
 Sympathēs, BDAG 958.
 Wilhelm Michaelis, sympathēs, TDNT 5:935-936.
 Philadelphos, BDAG 1055.
 Eusplanchnos, BDAG 413.
 Hans-Helmut Esser, "Mercy," NIDNTT 2:599-601.
 Tapeinophrōn, BDAG 989-990.
 Hans-Helmut Esser, "Humility," NIDNTT 2:256-264.
 "Insult" (NIV), "railing" (KJV), and "abuse" (NRSV) is the Greek noun loidoria, "speech that is highly insulting, abuse, reproach, reviling" (BDAG 602).
 Zēlōtēs, BDAG 427.
 "Blessed" (NIV, NRSV) or "happy" (KJV) is the Greek adjective makarios, "pertaining to being fortunate or happy because of circumstances" or "pertaining to being especially favored, "blessed, fortunate, happy, privileged" (BDAG 610-611).
 "Frightened" (NIV), "intimidated" (NRSV), and "troubled" (KJV) is the Greek verb tarassō, "to cause inward turmoil, stir up, disturb, unsettle, throw into confusion" (BDAG 990).
 Hagiazō, BDAG 9-10; Grudem 152-153.
 The Greek adjective hetoimos, "ready, prepared" (BDAG 401).
 Apologia, BDAG 117.
 Prautēs, BDAG 861.
 Phobos, BDAG 1062. Also used in this sense in Romans 13:7ab, Ephesians 6:5.
 Syneidēsis, BDAG 967-968.
 Paschō, BDAG 785-786.
 Peri, BDAG 797-798. Used this way in Romans 8:3; some readings of Galatians 1:4, and similarly in Hebrews 5:3c; 10:6, 8, 18, 26. See also 1 John 2:2. Peri is used of the propitiation of the sin offering in the Greek Septuagint in Leviticus 5:6, 7; 6:30; Ezekiel 53:21; Psalm 40:7, quoted in Hebrews 10:6. Selwyn notes that Peter prefers to reserve the proposition hyper for the persons benefited (Selwyn 196).
 Hapax, BDAG 97.
 Romans 6:10; Hebrews 7:27; 9:12, 26; 10:10.
 Hina, BDAG 475-477.
 Prosagō, BDAG 875-876.
 Grudem, 203-239, appendix.
 "Symbolizes" (NIV), "figure" (KJV), and "prefigured" (NRSV) translate the Greek noun antitypos, "pertaining to that which corresponds to something else, corresponding to" (BDAG 90-91). In Hebrews 9:24 antitypos is used as a substantive, "copy, antitype, representation." "The 'antitype' is what corresponds to, or is the counterpart of, the 'type' (typos)" (Kelly 160).
 "Removal" (NIV, NRSV) is the Greek noun apothesis, "removal, getting rid of" (BDAG 110). "Dirt" (NIV, NRSV) and "filth" (KJV) is the Greek noun rhypos, "dirt as refuse differentiated from soil, dirt" (BDAG 908). Some have seen this as a references to the removing of the foreskin in circumcision, contrasted with baptism as "a circumcision made without hands" (Colossians 2:11; Kelly 161-162). "Body" here is not soma, but sarx, meaning here, "physical body" (BDAG 915).
 Eperōtēma, BDAG 362.
 Kelly 162-163, based on work by Bo Reicke, The Disobedient Spirits, pp. 182-185.
 Salvation as a gift of God, not something we can earn, is clearly taught in Romans 3:20, 27; 11:6, 2 Timothy 1:9; and Titus 3:4-5.
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